The Most Coveted Wine You've Probably Never Heard Of

The wines of Henri Jayer, who helped invent modern Burgundy, are disappearing fast
The Wines of Henri Jayer
Mark Oldman

You are to be forgiven if the name Henri Jayer doesn't ring a bell. Wine-lovers know what Mouton and Lafite mean, and are aware enough of Pétrus to have pondered its proper pronunciation (it is "peh-troose"). Even scarcer and more lusted-after are the fabled bottlings of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC for short) from Burgundy, which author Roald Dahl once wrote were capable of producing "an orgasm at once in the mouth and in the nose.”

But under the radar for even many collectors flies another Burgundian producer, Henri Jayer. No major movie lionizes it like Sideways did Cheval Blanc, nor, despite its rhyming potential ("Zheye-ay"), do hip hop songs rhapsodize about it like they do for "Dom P" and Cristal.

Yet those in the know find ways, however indirect, to celebrate the wine. More than a few wine pros use an image of a Jayer label as their wallpaper on Instagram or Twitter, like fellows of a secret society signaling membership to each other. The wine also appears in the Japanese cult manga series The Drops of God, in which the Speed Racer-like characters seek out the world's best wines (in it, Jayer is declared "the god of Burgundy"). An iconoclastic Oregon winery even makes a high-low homage to Jayer with a T-shirt that swaps "Henri Jayer" for "Oscar Mayer" in the meat company's familiar logo.

Such admiration, and the fact that Jayer bottles are often among the world's most expensive when they appear at auction, is not just because only a microscopic quantity of this juice was made. (With as few as 3,500 bottles of each Jayer wine released every year, the output was indeed tiny by even the standards of Burgundy, where limited geography and fractured ownership naturally limits supply.) But miniscule production only partially explains the unique scarcity of Jayer's wines.

Unlike exalted Burgundies such as DRC and Domaine Leroy, which replenish with each new year, Henri Jayer wines were only made, from various vineyards, from the early 1950's to 2001. After that, Jayer himself fully retired and no more bottles carried his name, leaving what was fermented in those five decades to begin a slow disappearance from Earth.

To be sure, after 2001 the precious terroir that Jayer farmed lives on in bottles of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, the producer with whom Jayer had a sharecropper agreement, and Domaine Emmanuel Rouget, Jayer's nephew by marriage. While no one disputes that Méo-Camuzet and Rouget make celebrated wine, they remain like the new owners who take over a beloved restaurant: the magic, for many, will never be quite the same.

Henri Jayer was a disruptor decades before that term became part of the startup lexicon. At a time when questionable practices such as overcropping and the liberal use of chemical pesticides were the norm in Burgundy, the then 30-year-old winemaker showed a respect for the land and a passion for detail that would inspire future generations. He believed passionately in low yields — that is, in severely pruning his grapevines so they produced fewer but more flavorful grapes. He also was an early advocate of cold-soaking the crushed grapes for several days before fermentation, another way to rev up the wine's flavor as well as color.

And while other winemakers in the postwar years were filtering their wines to make them look clearer to drinkers, Jayer knew that this could diminish the wine's flavor and ageworthiness. Not only did he just say no to filtration, he often announced it, like a defiant rapper, on a separate strip placed prominently above the label: “Ce vin n’a pas été filtré" — "The wine has not been filtered.”

Martine Saunier, the retired 84-year-old California-based wine importer credited with "discovering" Jayer, attributes many of the innovations he introduced to the uncommon education he received. "When I started there was no enology program in Burgundy,” she recalls. “Wine knowledge was learned from your grandfather. You made decisions by taste."

Jayer, on the other hand, was able to attend classes at the University of Dijon just as it was establishing a curriculum in enology. There he studied under one of the great minds of modern winemaking, René Engel, a professor and vintner who was devoted to improving wine quality through science-based vinification techniques.

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But it was not just his schooling that stood Jayer apart. "The Engineer," as friends knew him, had a searching mind and a passion for innovation that could not be bridled. It was not enough for him to modernize Burgundy; he also single-handedly willed his own world-class vineyard into existence. In 1951, he bought the first parcel of an abandoned vineyard called Cros Parantoux in the appellation of Vosne-Romanée. Like those who recognized the possibilities in the derelict tracks that would become New York City's High Line Park, Jayer realized the potential in what was then a tract of land strangled with inhospitable rocks and deep-rooted Jerusalem artichoke plants.